How to Build Community Overseas - Part 1

Community has been sitting on my mind the past several weeks. The transition from a month at home in September back to Cambodia highlighted for me the contrasts in how I seek and sustain relationships overseas in comparison with my life back in the States.

community in cambodia expat overseas {journey mercies}

When I lived in Kansas City, my communities were formed by different circles - work, church, family, and people I had simply met along the way and clicked with over a shared activity, like salsa dancing. Sometimes the groups overlapped, but mostly they stayed separate and distinct. The result of this separation was that I had many different relationships but few deep ones. I was never forced to spend concentrated, consistent amounts of time with any one group or person (unless it was during my twelve hour shifts at the hospital!). I could easily find people who were like me and almost fall into friendships without trying.

But in Cambodia, I've had to change how I seek and sustain relationships. People move in and out of Poipet at dizzying speeds, and even while living here, much of our time is spend immersed in our work and traveling to other cities (or even other countries). My circles are all basically the same: most of the staff and patients at the clinic attend the same church we do; all but a few of the other expatriates (expats for short; meaning someone living outside their native country) work at the same jobs as Andrew and I, and we see them daily, whether at work or for fun.

The way of building relationships within Cambodian culture also seems so different to me. I haven't been able to figure out a way to build friendships with other married Cambodian women besides my neighbors, because they are either busy at home with their children or working full-time. There's not really a cultural context for "let's go get coffee" for women. I am also now completely reliant on others for transportation, since we sold our moto and don't have a personal car. That makes it difficult for me to initiate time with others, unless we're inviting them over to our home (which I also love to do!).

One of my fellow expats, a newbie here in Poipet, asked me how I cope with the fluctuating community here. Her question challenged me to stop and think, How do I cope with it? Am I reacting in a healthy way or just working to protect myself in relationships? How do we cultivate healthy community here in Poipet in the face of constant change? Below are some of my thoughts and experiences while living overseas for the past (almost) 3 years. Now, I am not a naturally relationship-oriented person; give me a task and I'm good, but a friendship? I am a slow learner. I'm pretty sure all you relationship-oriented peeps will wonder why I've had to learn any of the below, because it comes as second nature to you! I still struggle in all these areas, but I hope it encourages those who are struggling to build community in challenging circumstances.

I initially meant this to be one post, but obviously, I had way too much to say. So I'm giving the first two points here; check back next week for the rest of the story!

Be INTENTIONAL.

Friendships don't just happen by accident here, and you can't sit back and wait for someone to initiate them. Because of cultural differences, Cambodians will rarely be the first to make a move towards building a relationship with a foreigner. And the other expats may not necessarily be people you immediately click with or whom you'd pick as your best friend back home. But these are the people you will live and pray and work and laugh with for the duration of your stay overseas. So you need to be purposeful about making space for your relationships.

It means stepping out of your comfort zone - putting yourself out there, asking your Khmer neighbor to take a walk with you even if you have no idea what you'll say after that, or inviting someone over for lunch with whom you've never had a one-on-one conversation. I often have fleeting thoughts like, I should really hang out with that person, but I have to turn good intentions into action - that is what being intentional means. It can be so easy to get caught up in busy work and daily life that you forget about the people around you, even the ones you work alongside every day. But proximity doesn't equal intimacy - you have to step out and build that friendship.

Open your HOME.

Regardless of how long they've been overseas, expats crave the familiar - whether it's been two months or two years. And often, being in someone's home, especially someone from a similar cultural background, can provide that brief respite that rejuvenates them. God has blessed us with a great home for having over loads of people, and we try to make a habit of hospitality. But you should develop this habit regardless of whether you have a one-bedroom flat or a house you share with three other people or a huge home all by yourself. It can be so easy to see your home as an escape from the outside world and not open it to others who may disturb your peace.

But being in a home opens people's hearts to conversations that may not take place anywhere else. Sharing a meal you've made (or ordered - let's be real) shows the other person that you care about meeting their needs. I also feel that the phrase "pay it forward" applies to our theory of hospitality. We have experienced so much giving from others overseas and know what a difference it makes. It inspires us to share that experience with others who need it, too.

There's so much more I could say about this topic (and will!), but now I'd love to hear from you. Regardless of where you live, what challenges and successes have you found in building community? If you live overseas, how do you cope with constantly shifting relationships? I'd love to hear some wisdom from you!
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